A screenshot from the trailer for Conan the Barbarian, where the title warrior is shirtless on a beach swinging with his sword drawn gracefully above his head

What is Best in Life: Conan Movies on 4K

  • You’re all doomed!

    Doomed

  • Conan was one of several “sword and sorcery” characters created by Robert E. Howard all the way back in 1932. Like a lot of people may age, though, my first exposure to him didn’t come from a single word that Howard wrote. It didn’t even come from the bastardized paperbacks put out by L. Sprague de Camp beginning in the 1960s, even though a whole raft of them were in my house when I was kid, or the Marvel comic books that were published starting in 1970. No, my first introduction to Conan was Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian.

    Honestly, my first introduction to the character was probably not even the movie itself, but its striking poster art by Renato Casaro, depicting Schwarzenegger’s Conan and Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria in a suitably Frazetta-ish pose against a background of fire.

    We had a VHS copy of Conan the Barbarian when I was a kid, which repurposed that poster for its cover art. I can’t tell you how many times I watched it. I caught plenty of other sword and sorcery films on TV over the years, including the rather unfortunate sequel to Conan, the unofficial spiritual sequel Red Sonja, Beastmaster, and many others, but Conan the Barbarian was the only one that I owned when I was young, and it was the one that burned itself into my memory.

    When I came to read Howard’s original stories many years later, it was difficult at times to reconcile them with the film I had seen. I loved them just as much, probably even more, but they were two different beasts. The Conan on screen belongs to Milius and Schwarzenegger, and has little in common with the lithe, dark Cimmerian of Howard’s stories. Which is fine. There’s plenty of room out there for both…

    “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure.” – Conan the Barbarian (1982)

    There are some movies that simply hold up. And there are some that even get better with age. Conan the Barbarian, directed by John Milius and with a screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone (of all fucking people) is one of those films that needs no introduction. While it wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first picture, it was the one that catapulted him to stardom, while also kicking off an entire cottage industry of barbarian flicks.

    Many of those movies that followed in its footsteps are fun watches, and some of them bring more of the character of the original stories to the screen than this 1982 classic, but none of them are Conan the Barbarian. There’s an ambition (and a budget) here that none of them could match – or ever really tried to. At once a grandiosity that few other fantasy epics have ever conjured to the screen, and enough weirdo digressions and cul-de-sacs to still make it feel like pulp.

    We can’t talk about Conan the Barbarian without mentioning its Carmina Burana-inspired score by Basil Poledouris, either. As much as any of the cinematography or Milius and Stone’s screenplay, it is the music that makes Conan feel like something more than its successors. It is perhaps no surprise that Conan the Barbarian was the first soundtrack CD I ever purchased.

    Blue Ray cover for the 4K release of Conan the Barbarian with the classic painting of the warrior in a spiked helmet holding his sword up high as his companion kneels with her own sword and racy armor

    And despite Schwarzenegger’s ridiculous grunts and bugging eyes, it’s easy to see why this film made him a star. Writing for Cinefantastique, Paul Sammon called the bodybuilder the “living incarnation of one of Frazetta’s paperback illustrations.” But beyond capturing the look, Schwarzenegger also brings a charisma and even a vulnerability to the role that helps to breathe life into what could easily be a one-note character.

    He is, of course, helped along by the rest of his cast. Sandahl Bergman as the thief and warrior who is Conan’s match, Gerry Lopez as Subotai the archer, a brief turn by Max von Sydow as an aging king, James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, and even bodybuilder Sven-Ole Thorsen and pro football player Ben Davidson as two heavies who later lent their (unlicensed, I’m sure) likenesses to some villains in the video game Golden Axe.

    Perhaps most striking this time around, however, was Mako, as the Wizard of the Mounds, who also serves as the film’s narrator. Of course, as a kid, I watched Conan the Barbarian until the wheels fell off, which means that I could probably have recited most of the film’s narration from memory. What I hadn’t remembered, prior to sitting down and watching it again, however, was that Mako also provided the voice for Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender until partway through the show’s second season. And, despite the several decades separating them, his voice sounds exactly the same. So, if you want a very different experience, just imagine Uncle Iroh narrating the Conan story to you as you watch…

    “All our destinies are at hand, even Conan’s.” – Conan the Destroyer (1984)

    In spite of a shot at the end of Conan the Barbarian teasing a much older Conan seizing the crown of Aquilonia and making himself “king by his own hand,” a sequel to the successful picture didn’t wait that long. Instead, Conan the Destroyer hit screens just two years after the release of Conan the Barbarian. Though it has won its fans and supporters both upon its release and in the years since – Variety called it “the ideal sword and sorcery picture” – Conan the Destroyer is emphatically not what its predecessor was.

    You can probably lay much of this at the feet of the absence of John Milius. Conan the Barbarian was obviously a passion project for Milius, who had a very specific vision in mind for what he wanted his picture to be. With Milius unavailable for the sequel, however, producer Dino De Laurentis (and his daughter Raffaella, who was actually producing Conan the Destroyer) got Richard Fleischer, who had been directing big budget movies since the 1950s.

    Fleischer had directed Amityville 3D the year before (not exactly a commendation) and would go on to team with Schwarzenegger for another sword and sorcery picture in Red Sonja the following year. Milius wasn’t the only absentee from the previous Conan film, either. While Poledouris was back on composing duties, most of the cast was new, except for Schwarzenegger and Mako reprising their roles, and Sven-Ole Thorsen playing a different character.

    Rounding out the rest of the cast is one of the few places where Conan the Destroyer manages to get it right. The supporting cast are made up of folks like Tracy Walter, Wilt Chamberlain, Pat Roach (the bald, beefy Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and even an uncredited bit with Andre the Giant under a heavy monster suit. The best part, though, is undeniably Grace Jones as Zula. In writing about the film at the time of its release, Roger Ebert called Jones “really sensational” with “all the flash and fire of a great rock stage star.” And he’s not wrong.

    everything included in the deluxe version of Conan the Destroy in 4K, including a slipcase with the cover of Arnold with his sword, postcards with stills from the movie, and a poster

    When the pouty virginal princess asks Zula how one goes about getting a man, no one but Grace Jones could sell her response, as she growls, “You grab him! And take him!”

    One place Conan the Destroyer does manage to edge out the first film is in the monster department, with a big bad represented by a rubbery, suitably Lovecraftian critter called Dagoth, brought to life by special effects maven Carlo Rambaldi, whose name is probably most inextricably associated with E.T. 

    Where Destroyer slips up most is in its efforts to be more popular than its predecessor. Conan the Barbarian made a respectable $40-80 million with a well-earned R rating. The producers felt that the sequel could make even more, if it was just rated PG. (The PG-13 rating did not yet exist; it would be introduced in July of 1984, while Destroyer came out in June.) To this end, and to use Roger Ebert’s words again, they made the movie “sillier, funnier, and more entertaining” than the first film – and definitely hit at least one of those.

    The violence may be ostensibly toned down in Conan the Destroyer – though there are still plenty of beheadings and even some particularly squirmy moments – but the real casualty is the tone. The story is by comic book scribes Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, and feels suitably comic book-y as a result, but even they weren’t happy with how the film turned out, later adapting their own story into the 1990 graphic novel Conan the Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth. Where the original Conan the Barbarian, even at its silliest, felt like something the filmmakers really believed in, Conan the Destroyer just feels like a goof, and virtually every attempt at what passes for humor lands with a sickening thud.

    It’s not quite as bad as its reputation, suffering partly from the Son of Kong syndrome where it is judged for not being what its predecessor was, but it’s definitely a big step down.

    Odds are, neither film has ever looked better than they do on these new 4K versions from Arrow Video, which also come loaded with featurettes and bonus materials. Conan the Barbarian boasts three different cuts and, while they’re not very different, the extended cut does restore a couple of beats that I had never seen before. And even Destroyer looks sharp and clear and crisp on this loving new release.

    ———

    Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, game designer, and amateur film scholar who loves to write about monsters, movies, and monster movies. He’s the author of several spooky books, including How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. You can find him online at orringrey.com.

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